With Sam Brownback’s appointment as U.S. International Religious Freedom Ambassador (IRF), many religious freedom advocates may be slightly hopeful. Donald Trump made a relatively quick appointment for a human rights position, one that has tended to be downplayed in previous administrations. But Brownback will be at best an ineffective and at worse a counterproductive champion of religious freedom. All religious freedom advocates should be concerned about this move, and the broader human rights community should be worried.
Just a word about where I am coming from on this. Prior to becoming a professor, I ran the Pew Research Center’s work on global religious freedom. The Pew Research Center is nonpartisan and objective, so I happily refrained from political debates while I worked there. While there, I did work with the State Department’s IRF office, and admired their efforts. I also engaged closely with international religious freedom groups, and enjoyed their attempt to remain principled and bipartisan. Particularly, as a liberal, I was heartened to be able to work alongside many conservatives on this issue. I come at this as someone who is part of the religious freedom community, and wants it to succeed.
So why might this appointment seem encouraging? Well, the fact that the IRF ambassador was appointed within a few months is a big deal. George W. Bush took about a year for his IRF ambassador to be appointed. It was about a year before Obama’s first IRF ambassador took office and the post sat empty for about a year after she stepped down. That this appointment seems to have such priority appears a good thing. Moreover, Brownback was a sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 — that created the IRF office — and advocated for Christians in Sudan when he was a Senator.
That is the extent of the encouraging signs about this appointment, however. International religious freedom advocates should be worried for a few reasons.
The first is his lack of a recent record on international religious freedom. Over the past several years, Brownback was primarily known for his efforts to advance conservative causes as Governor of Kansas. It is difficult to engage on international religious freedom issues without having closely followed them prior to taking office. By contrast, David Saperstein — President Obama’s last IRF Ambassador — had a long career focused on religious engagement, including as part of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Indeed, the importance of recent experience was the reason many conservative religious freedom groups opposed President Obama’s first IRF Ambassador, Susan Johnson Cook.
Another concern — which my conservative religious freedom advocate friends may not share — has to do with Brownback’s stance on culture war issues. As Governor, Brownback put in place abortion restrictions and signed controversial laws on campus religious groups. Having conservative views does not disqualify someone from championing international religious freedom, which is a bipartisan issue. But Brownback may focus on the intersection between the culture wars and religious freedom to the exclusion of clear cases of religious repression. Indeed, debates similar to those in the United States about women’s health care and reproductive rights have occurred in Europe; previous IRF office reports have highlighted some of these.
Additionally, even if Donald Trump chose the perfect advocate for religious freedom, this person would still be serving the Trump Administration. There is little indication human rights will be a concern for the Trump Administration. And while Trump has claimed he will defend religious freedom, he mostly talks about the freedom to say “Merry Christmas.” Meanwhile, his policies and rhetoric about Muslims hardly seem a defense of religious freedom. Even if Brownback wanted to be a dedicated champion of religious freedom, it is likely the rest of the administration would ignore or block him.
Ultimately, Brownback’s nomination seems to me like a political move. This is not a sign of dedication to religious freedom on the part of Donald Trump, and religious freedom groups should not celebrate it as such. Brownback’s political future does not look good in Kansas, and leaving now saves him any potential embarrassment. Additionally, some religious freedom groups had suggested Brownback as IRF Ambassador. By nominating Brownback, Trump keeps conservative Christians — whose support has been crucial so far — happy. He also undercuts attempts by religious freedom advocates to organize opposition, as his supporters can point to his apparent defense of religious freedom with this appointment.
And this is why the entire human rights community should care about this nomination. Religious freedom is often a lower tier issue, even for those concerned about human rights. Many see it as secondary or part of human rights like freedom of expression. And some on the left see religious freedom as primarily a conservative cause. I’ve long tried to argue that religious freedom should be of primary concern and a bipartisan issue, but these attitudes persist. But this move by Trump suggests a rocky path for other human rights advocates. Trump is using an important human rights appointment to keep friends happy and avoid critics from mobilizing. He will likely handle other human rights positions in a similar manner.
So as someone who works on religious freedom, it’s nice we seem to be getting attention. But we should not be so happy about this nomination that we view Trump as a potential ally. Nothing Donald Trump has said or done indicates he will support international religious freedom. If religious freedom advocates rush to celebrate this move, and refrain from criticizing Trump because of it, we will be seriously undermining the effectiveness and credibility of this cause.
This post originally appeared on Medium.